By Lindsay Peyton
The second Saturday of each month, Jim and Cindy Tierney, members of FUMC Lufkin, pull a barbecue pit into the parking lot by Herty Primary School. They start setting up around 9:30 a.m. Jim lights the charcoal, preparing to cook hundreds of hot dogs and hamburgers for families in need. The couple hangs a sign on a chain link fence that reads, “Free Lunch This Saturday.”
“The community knows to look for the sign,” Cindy said. “We’ll be there.”
Before the meals are served, Jim offers a blessing. “Anyone who is around circles up and prays,” Cindy said.
The Tierneys have hosted the Cook & Serve at Herty Primary for the past 10 years. In total, the couple and volunteers have prepared and served 36,000 meals to families in need at the school that teaches students from pre-k to second grade.
And the Tierneys never miss a month. If a conflict arises, they simply change the date of the lunch.
The Tierneys joined FUMC Lufkin about three decades ago. Their fellow church members Brent and Laura Brookshire started the Cook & Serve ministry at a different location, closer to the church, to provide meals to homeless individuals. “They felt a need to give back, and came up with this idea,” Jim said.
He learned about the offering when the Brookshires asked him to help build a covered area, where they could set up and serve. The Brookshires hosted one day a month, and other couples volunteered to host other weekends. In total, there were about three Saturdays on the calendar each month dedicated to Cook & Serve.
At the time, Cindy, who serves as executive director of student services and federal programs at Lufkin ISD, was the principal of Herty Primary. “In that area, there are a lot of families in need,” Jim said. “There are houses that sometimes have water, sometimes have electricity, and sometimes do not.”
Cindy explained that the school was about 98 percent low-income. “There were folks in need everywhere,” she said.
The Tierneys began brainstorming. They proposed taking the Cook & Serve model to a new location at Herty Primary, where they could reach a different population – low-income families. “There were a lot of kids on the other side of town that weren’t getting fed on weekends,” Jim said.
Jim asked the Brokshires if he could borrow their barbecue pit. The Tierneys loaned a trailer with tables and chairs from the church. Then, they made flyers in English and Spanish and posted them up all around the neighborhood. “It basically said, ‘We’ll have free food,’” Jim recalled. “And we’d like to welcome you to come.”
Cindy wrote emails to all of the sister schools in the area. She wanted to share the offering with other families in need in Lufkin. “I wanted to get the word out,” she said.
The Tierneys reached out to the church and the community for volunteers and donations. The first Cook & Serve at Herty Primary was in March 2013.
Cindy said that it took a while for the buzz to build, but now the Cook & Serve at Herty Primary is a fixture on calendars for a number of families. On their busiest days, volunteers have served 240 hot dogs and 240 hamburgers. On an average day, 160 of each are served.
For years, families stuck around and ate their meals. Bible studies and crafts were provided for children.
During COVID, the Cook & Serve switched to a drive-through – and now is a hybrid of both. Cindy asks drivers how many children are in the household and hands them coloring sheets with a Bible verse for each.
Through the years, volunteers have always arrived, whether from FUMC Lufkin, the school district or the community. “Every time we start to think we’re not going to have any help, the good Lord finds a way to send someone to us,” Jim said. “We always end up having enough people to help – and enough food to serve.”
Donations have also been a constant – and come from a variety of sources. For instance, Coston Elementary provided hot dogs for years. A former school principal donates water, and a current one brings the cheese.
“We have an account at church for backup,” Cindy said. “I don’t think we’ve ever had to dip into it.”
Cook & Serve has developed a close partnership with Herty Primary. The school provides access to a closet, where the church can store water and dinnerware.
A few years ago, Jim said, the church assessed the program and asked, “What does success look like?” Some churches do outreach to help build membership, he explained. This is different.
“Our goal is to try to teach other people how to serve in the community, how to give back,” Jim said.
And that has happened in a number of ways. For example, students in the Honor Society have volunteered to help.
“We’ve also sat down and shared this with two other preachers in town,” Jim said. “They want to start something like this at their church.”
Cindy said the volunteers have made connections with the community – and have witnessed how the monthly lunch has made a difference. And she has heard that the prayer Jim offers before the meal is the only prayer some of the kids get all weekend.
“We’re bringing Jesus to the community,” Cindy said. “We’re proud of our program. It’s a church, and it’s the community, and it involves the school. It kind of covers all the bases.”